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'94 debate over nuclear waste storage failed to change Minnesota's energy mix
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Prairie Island's 17 nuclear waste storage casks are now full (File photo)
In 1994, Minnesota's largest utility, then known as Northern States Power, went to the state Legislature with a controversial request. The cooling pool where NSP stored spent nuclear fuel inside its Prairie Island plant was nearly full. The company wanted to store additional waste outside, in steel casks. After months of bitter debate, lawmakers granted permission for 17 casks. Nine years later, the casks are full and the company ---now Xcel Energy -- is back at the Capitol asking for more.

St. Paul, Minn. — In 1994, NSP ran this radio ad as part of a statewide media campaign:

"NSP plans to store used nuclear fuel at its Prairie Island Plant in 17-foot-high steel containers with walls over nine inches thick. The Minnesota Legislature is considering the plan," the ad said.

For the company, the issue was clear. If the Prairie Island plant couldn't find somewhere to store its spent nuclear fuel, it would have to close.

"The impact of shutting down this power plant, which generates 20 percent of the electricity we provide to our customers, would be major, and we think all of the people in the state of Minnesota need to understand that," NSP's Merle Anderson told Minnesota Public Radio in January of that year.

But shutting down the plant didn't seem like such a bad idea to some. Environmentalists saw NSP's storage problems as the perfect opportunity to force the company to abandon nuclear energy. Ken Pentel, then an organizer with Greenpeace, was one of around 100 people who demonstrated at NSP's annual meeting in April of 1994.

"Stopping the dump at Prairie Island, we shift energy dollars to a renewable energy future, and that's what we're trying to get [across] to the shareholders, that long beyond your investment, future generations will have to bear the cost of the existing system," Pentel told an MPR reporter.

Lawmakers had to chose between two conflicting visions.

Environmentalists said that the nuclear industry was choking on its own waste, and that the future lay in wind power and other renewable energy sources.

NSP insisted that the storage casks were a purely temporary solution. Eventually, the company said, the backlog of spent fuel would be moved out of Minnesota, and nuclear power could continue to be an essential part of the state's energy mix.

It was a big decision.

Nuclear sources accounted for nearly one third of NSP's power supply. Twenty percent was generated by the Prairie Island plant, and another 10 percent from a second nuclear plant at Monticello, Minnesota.

The issue plunged lawmakers into what some would remember as the hardest fought session in 25 years. Finally, the House and Senate passed opposing bills. One bill prohibited the casks; the other approved them.

MPR Capitol correspondent Mike Mulcahy described the atmosphere in a report broadcast in April of 1994, as a conference committee faced the seemingly impossible task of reconciling the two bills.

"Even before the first meeting began, 83-year-old State Representative Willard Munger was overheard challenging 44-year-old Senator Steve Novak to a fistfight, because Novak accused Munger of wanting to shut down the Prairie Island plant," Mulcahy reported. Novak was waste bill's chief sponsor. As his bill struggled through endless committees, he argued that what NSP needed was time to ease itself away from nuclear energy. He said his bill would buy that time.

"It is a comprehensive approach to moving Minnesota away from nuclear energy towards renewables and non-fossil-fuel energy resources into the next century," Novak explained to an MPR reporter.

Larger view
Image Entrance at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

NSP's CEO had met with key lawmakers and assured them that if they granted the dry cask storage, the company would never ask for more. A bill finally passed in May of 1994. The legislation gave NSP its dry casks, but it also required the company to greatly expand its use of wind and biomass energy. Sen. Phil Riveness, DFL-Bloomington, told his senate colleagues the plan was a good compromise.

"I think we have a solution that does not close down this plant," Riveness announced. "And we require, and I think this is a critical point, that no more than the equivalent of 17 dry casks will ever be on our property in the state of Minnesota."

But today, Xcel Energy says it could need more than 50 dry casks at Prairie Island to keep the plant running for the next 30 years. The waste is piling up because so far, all efforts to find a place outside of Minnesota to take nuclear waste have failed.

The company has sued the federal government to take the waste. It has tried to build temporary storage on two different Indian reservations, in New Mexico and Utah. The Utah effort is still underway, but has suffered numerous setbacks. A permanent storage site planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is not expected to begin accepting waste before the year 2015.

Xcel's Jim Alders says that's not what the company anticipated when it went to the Minnesota legislature nine years ago.

"I think the expectation was that one or all of these different avenues would result in some sort of resolution of the issue so we could continue to operate by now," Alders said.

But critics like Michael Noble of the environmental group Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy says Xcel should stick to the deal it cut with state lawmakers.

"That's the way policy works around here, is you find a middle ground," says Noble. "And the middle ground was that we're going to have a reasonable and thoughtful transition out of this business, if the waste problem won't go away. And if anything's obvious nine years later, it's that the waste problem won't go away."

Although Xcel has complied with the bill's renewable energy mandates, Noble says the company has done much less than it could have to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy.

Xcel now has more than 400 megawatts of wind power and 125 megawatts of biomass power built or under contract. Because of the 1994 law, the company will be required to nearly double its wind power over the next decade, to 800 megawatts. But Noble says Minnesota has the potential for tens of thousands of megawatts of wind energy -- at a price that has dropped dramatically since the 1994 debate.

"We're not saying that all of Minnesota's energy, or half of Minnesota's energy can come from renewables. We're saying that when you have clear policy direction to vigorously move forward with renewable energy, ten years later to say one percent is where we are is a pretty sad showing," Noble said.

But Xcel says replacing nuclear power with an intermittent source like wind isn't possible without expensive backup power systems. Today, nuclear power makes up the same percent of Xcel's energy mix as it did in 1994. And Xcel says unless Minnesota lawmakers lift the 17 cask limit this session, the Prairie Island Plant will have to shut down within a few years, and likely the Monticello plant after that.

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